St Michael & St Barnabas, July 1st 2018
Readings: Colossians 1:15-23; Luke 8:22-25
Have you ever met someone who, when you mention you are a Christian, simply says, ‘I don’t believe in God!’? Next time, try asking them to describe the God they don’t believe in … I suspect you don’t believe in that kind of God, either!
Or perhaps you know someone who puts limits on the God they believe in … ‘If God is love then he wouldn’t allow this, that or the other’, or even, ‘If God is love, then he won’t stop me doing what I want!’.
Over the years, I’ve found that people are generally quite happy to talk about God … he makes them feel good, or superior, or comfortable. But ask them to describe God and they will either struggle – because it’s all about how it makes them feel – or the God they describe will be nothing like the God we see revealed in Jesus, through the Bible.
You see, Jesus is the image of the invisible God (1:15). Do you remember in John’s gospel, while Jesus is teaching his disciples on that last evening, the evening of his betrayal, Philip asks a question:
John 14:8 … Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’
How did Jesus reply?
John 14:9 … Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father …’
Or perhaps you’re familiar with the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews,
Hebrews 1:3 … The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all thing by his powerful word.
If we want to know what God is like, we must start – and end – with Jesus. So let’s look a little further into our passage for today.
Colossians 1:16 … For by him all things were created …
Someone else you may meet will say, ‘I don’t believe in the God of the Old Testament, he is violent and judgemental. No, I like the God of the New Testament, the God of love.’ Well, first you have to question if they’ve actually read the New Testament – Jesus talks almost as often about hell (and, incidentally, money) as he does about love. And even as he’s going around healing and forgiving people, he condemns others for their lack of faith, calling them out for their sin and disobedience.
But you don’t only find Jesus in the New Testament … v16 again … by him all things were created …
Look at the account of creation in Genesis 1 … v3 for example … And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. According to Paul here in Colossians, Jesus was right there, the agent of God’s creation, making it happen.
John says much the same thing, in John 1:3 … Through him (that is, the word of God, Jesus) all things were made; (and just to be sure, John restates it in the negative) without him nothing was made that has been made.
And again, back in Hebrews 1:2 … in these last days (God) has spoken to us by his Son … through whom he made the universe.
Jesus was right there at the beginning, and he’s there throughout the Old Testament, if you know how to look … for example, all the prophets speak of him in one way or another. When Jesus came as a baby born in Bethlehem, that was not the beginning of the story – nor was it the end.
But Paul wants us to grasp a still bigger picture – Jesus was not simply the agent of creation when God made the world. Read on in v16 …
… by him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us, … our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
There is a greater reality than Brexit, or the war in Syria, or famine in Africa, or the space race, or plastic, or renewable energies, or alternative sexuality, or religious persecution … sometimes we struggle to trust that God is in control of such things, but Paul tells us that in Jesus, he is also in control of much more … things beyond our understanding, yet realities all the same.
v17 … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Do you ever think about the Big Bang? How the world was made from a cloud of dust and particles (we might ask, who created the cloud?) … it required so much energy to pull it all together, to create the bonds in atoms and molecules, and to stop it all spinning apart again from the sheer forces of speed as it spins in space? Now, my science about the Big Bang may be faulty, but don’t let anyone ever tell you that science and faith don’t mix … as I learned about chemical bonds during sixth form chemistry, so my faith grew and grew as I saw the intricate, minute detail of creation and understood the impossibility of chance so arranging things that life exists at all, let alone continues. In him all things hold together.
We’ve reached a crescendo, a vision so large our minds can’t contain it, and we can’t begin to understand it … and it’s at this point Paul shifts his focus,
v18 … And he is the head of the body, the church …
The one who holds all things together, from the tiniest particle to the vastness of space; the one who has authority over everything, and everyone … visible and invisible … is Lord of the church, and the God we worship.
He is not merely creator and sustainer of the universe, for he is also,
v18 … the firstborn from among the dead …
Death is where the visible and invisible finally collide … and in Jesus’ resurrection we have all the evidence we need that,
v18 … in everything (he has) the supremacy.
Some versions use the word pre-eminence … but in case we still don’t quite grasp what that means (and I confess I struggle would to explain it), Paul goes on … he hasn’t finished yet …
v19 … For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him,
Whatever God is, Jesus is. We meet him in the bible as a man, born in the usual way, albeit with some unusual stories surrounding his birth, trained as a carpenter by his father, yet with the power to heal, with stories that challenge, and with an aura of authority that intimidated the powers of the day. But Paul here tells us there was so much more.
What does ‘the fulness of God’ mean? Hebrews puts it like this …
Hebrews 1:3 (again) … The Son is the radiance of God’s glory …
And although some have been given glimpses of Jesus in all his glory – think of Isaiah’s conversion, the transfiguration, or John’s visions in Revelation – few of us can grasp it, at least not yet.
So we have a man, endowed with all power, sufficient to create and sustain the universe, with authority over all things, visible and invisible, full of the glory of God, and all that God is … this is the God we worship. This is Jesus.
And yet Paul still hasn’t finished his portrait of Jesus – you’d think that was enough, but no …
v20 … and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven …
One of the reasons we fail to see the reality of who Jesus is, that we can’t quite imagine what heaven must be like, or grasp the realities of the world’s invisible and evil powers, is that we are sinners. In Romans, Paul puts it like this …
Romans 1:20 … For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
And in Romans 3:23 … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Yet part of God’s plan all along, from the creation of the world, has been to bring reconciliation to every aspect of his creation, through Christ Jesus. How did he do that?
v20 … by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
This God/Man Jesus, came for one purpose … to die. And in John’s gospel, Jesus constantly refers to his coming death as ‘his glory’ …
All that we have read and heard about Jesus in this passage culminates here … at the cross.
And in case we’ve still somehow managed to miss the point, Paul goes on and explains it a different way …
v21 … Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death (that is, as a man dying on the cross) to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation –
But here comes the challenge …
v23 … if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.
There is no such thing as a part-time Christian. How can there be … ?
Everyone worships something or someone. It might be a celebrity, it might be their family, their children or grandchildren. It could be something like science or engineering or literature. Or sport or a TV programme! But you’ll know what it is … what occupies their thoughts, what do they talk about … what are they passionate about? For some, it’s fairly obvious that they worship themselves … that’s all they talk about!
With a God like ours, how can we worship anything or anyone else?
If you want to know what God is like … look at Jesus. And it might be that you don’t always like what you see. We all know God is love … but sometimes it’s tough love. God’s love is not about making us happy, or letting us do whatever we want, or getting us out of trouble we shouldn’t really be in. God isn’t really interested in making us feel good. God’s interest in us is all about reconciliation … ensuring that despite our sin, we can have a relationship with him, both now and forever, in the visible world and the invisible.
That’s why Paul’s portrait of Jesus culminates with the cross … only once we have grasped Jesus’ glory, his power and his authority … God’s fulness dwelling in him … only then will we see the true significance, and cost, of the cross … the centrality of the cross in God’s plan for all creation. Only then will we truly understand what it means to worship.
v23 …This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Lord, at this moment we are lost in wonder, love and praise at your greatness, and at your mercy in finding a way to save us. Lord, remind us tomorrow … and the day after … and every day after that! For your glory. Amen